The Saga of the Jomsvikings tells several stories, those of the death of Kings, feuds between neighboring farms, and the exploits of fierce young warriors. However, perhaps the main thrust of the saga is the tale of a courageous group of Norsemen who removed themselves from society to form a sort of military order known as the Jomsvikings. This group, living in the coastal fortress of Jomsborg, exemplified the traits of its culture: they were strong, steadfast, loyal to their leader, brave, and skilled at arms. The saga goes on to tell of several of the exploits of this order, and concludes with the battle of Hjlrunga Bay, where the Jomsvkings are defeated and effectively disbanded, although many of them survived.
Nothing quite like the Saga of the Jomsvikings occurs anywhere else in Norse literature. There are many sagas detailing the exploits of single men, or chronicling blood feuds between rival families. However, there is no other mention of a separate order of men devoted to expressing the exemplary traits of their society. Though this does not appear in Norse literature, it is my belief that the stories of King Arthur mirror the aforementioned saga very closely. The Saga of the Jomsvikings was scribed sometime in the thirteen-hundreds after having been present in oral form for several hundred years, and the origins of the King Arthur stories, originally Welsh, apparently predated this. In this paper I intend to compare the two orders as they occur in the literature of their respective societies. The Saga of the Jomsvikings will be the exclusive reference for the information on the Jomsvikings (therefore any and all references made from here on to a saga will refer to the aforementioned saga), and several sources will be drawn from for the information on King Arthur and his knight, as there isn’t a single comprehensive collection of the stories of Arthur and his knights. See Viking T-Shirts on Amazon.com.
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN the STORIES
There are two main types of similarities between the Saga of the Jomsvikings and the Arthur legends. One is the similarities having to do with the orders themselves and the people in those groups. The other has to do with the literary similarities: how the stories are written, their purpose(s) and so forth. Both will be presented together in order to illustrate the connection between the characters and the purpose of the stories.
The Jomsvikings are founded by a great Norseman called Palnatoki. He was popular, moderately wealthy, mighty, and wise; in short he possessed all the qualities that were desirable in Viking society. When the Jomsvikings actually came together, he became their leader. Total allegiance was pledged to Palnatoki by all the Jomsvikings, he was given the privilege to settle disputes between his men, and it was his duty to announce all news that came to the group.
Arthur was the undisputed leader of the knights at Camelot, although for a slightly different reason; since Arthur pulled the sword that conferred kingship on whosoever could draw it out of the stone (or anvil, depending on the story) from which it rested, he was made King of England and attracted all of these virtuous knights, whereas Palnatoki just got some men that were loyal to him together and formed his own group of warriors with him at its lead. Arthur was a skilled warrior, brave, chivalrous, and wise; in short he possessed all the qualities that were desirable in England (or Wales) at the time the stories were written. Thus, as is obvious, the first similarity that links these two orders is that they were both organized and commanded by a powerful leader who possessed the noble or desirable traits of the day.
Both the Jomsvikings and King Arthur and his knights were committed to honor, bravery, and courage. Both orders, in times of anarchy, strife, and lawlessness decided to uphold the virtues of good rather than to succumb to the evils of the day. To symbolize their commitment to their morals, they swore to abide by certain rules and regulations in order for them to be able to stay in the order. The Jomsvikings had a very well defined set of laws that included the necessity of a test in order to gain access to the order, an oath to defend and/or avenge their fellow Jomsvkings as if they were brothers, an oath that they would not flee from any man equal in bravery and armament nor show fear of any sort, and that no man was to start a conflict within the fortress, among others (63). Those knights who sat at the great Round Table were chosen, by Merlin, on the basis of their worthiness and virtue. These men were also required to take an oath to, among other things, be courageous to the strong, to defend the helpless, to come to each others’ defense should they need it, and to be terrible to the evil-doer (Pyle 146). In each case, it is not as important what the virtues were that the orders swore to uphold, but rather the fact that these virtues were the exemplary virtues of the societies they were a part of; both orders were composed of the “best of the best.”
Although each order functioned basically as an autonomous collective, there were a select few members in each that stood apart for their outstanding qualities. Usually, these special individuals embodied one particular virtue that the order as a whole was to portray. The notable characters may even be paired off to a certain extent with their analogs in the opposite story. In the Jomsviking saga, Boi and Sigvaldi both offer advice to Palnatoki and are accomplished warriors. This fits with the image of Sir Kay and/or Sir Bedevere, probably among others, in the Arthurian romances. In the Jomsviking saga, Vagn comes to the order seeking entrance and does battle with a member of great skill and prowess, and yet defeats him, thus entering in to the order. In the Arthurian romances, the combat between Arthur and Lancelot, while not intended to gain Lancelot entry to the Round Table, resembles this theme of conflict quite closely. Another important similarity that goes along with this idea is that the leaders of both orders possess all the qualities of their combined men. As is pointed out in the introduction to the Saga of the Jomsvikings, Boi has “manly intrepidity,” Vagn is recklessly heroic, and Sigvaldi exceptionally wise, but only Palnatoki, their leader, possesses all these qualities (22). The same can be said for Arthur, as he has the wisdom of Bedevere, the fighting prowess of Lancelot, and the chivalry of Gawain. Thus it can be seen that individual members of the separate orders are somewhat similar, and that the leader of each is basically the sum of the desirable traits of his order.
The fact that the men in these orders and their leaders embody the desirable qualities of their cultures brings up a question as to the actual purpose of both the Saga of the Jomsvikings and the Arthur stories. On the surface, they were written to record history and to tell of the heroic deeds of men long dead. However, it is my belief that these stories were written in such a way as to glorify the men involved so that they would be emulated by those reading the stories. In this manner the stories set an example to the populace of the time about how to behave, and gave guidelines about what was right and just as opposed to what was wrong and unjust. These stories were basically the fables of the fourteenth century.
Another very important similarity between these two groups of men is that they find their downfall in a large battle that they seem to lose. The Jomsvikings fight in the battle of Hjorunga Bay against Earl H kon, and end up losing the battle due to the intervention of a god (Ch 21). The knights of the Round Table enter a battle with Mordred’s (the bastard son of Arthur) army and all the knights are killed, save Sir Bedevere and Arthur, who is mortally wounded. Despite the fact that many men of both orders are lost in these final battles, you will note that it is can not be viewed as a total loss for either of these groups. For the Jomsvikings, many of their men are killed, either in battle or in the execution following the battle, but many live after Vagn frees himself and bargains for the life of the Jomsvikings. Also, this can not be called a total loss for the Jomsvikings because they showed during the execution that their order lived up to the vows that it had taken. In the case of the knights of the Round Table, though all but two die, Mordred is killed and the order dies upholding their values and virtues. Therefore, we can see that both orders are the same in the fashion in which they decline and in the nebulousness of the loss they suffer.
Certainly, as shown above, both the Jomsvikings and the knights of Arthur’s court suffered downfalls, but in terms of the literary purposes behind the stories, as the author of either of these tales, what purpose could it serve to humiliate or kill the heroes you had worked so hard to glorify? To answer this question, one must examine the reason behind the downfalls of the orders. The Jomsvikings are brought to their downfall due to, in my opinion, their betrayal of their values after Palnatoki dies. Arthur and his knights, on the other hand brought about their own downfall due to internal strife and the designs of the Mordred, who was the result of an incestuous union between Arthur and his half sister Morgana; the knights, especially Arthur and Lancelot fell to bickering with one another
1: This point is debatable because it is generally unclear as to whether Arthur is dead or just mortally wounded as he’s being taken off to Avalon. Certainly, though, Bedevere is still alive and is the last knight to die. and they were weakened to the point of defeat. This is a betrayal of their values, as they were sworn to treat one another as kin, and, of course, one should never fornicate with one’s half-sister. Thus it looks to me like both orders were punished for reneging on their oaths and thus were defeated in battle. The reason, therefore, for fashioning a demise for the heroes that had been created is fairly simple: it serves as a warning to the readers not to denounce their values nor to break from the values of the day.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN the STORIES
There are two major differences between these two orders. The first is the fact that the Jomsvkings forbade women to stay at Jomsborg, whereas Arthur had no problems with women at Camelot; he had his own wife Guinevere there. However, while this may seem like an innocent enough difference, it raises the question of whether or not the authors were trying to send a message to the male populace. Was the author of the Jomsvikings trying to encourage the general male populace to shun the company of women (if the Jomsvikings do it, why shouldn’t we?)? Likewise, were the authors of the Arthur stories doing the same (as in most of the stories Guinevere starts the problems between Lancelot and Arthur) by showing how much trouble women could cause?
The other difference between the Jomsvikings and the knights of King Arthur is what happens to them after their downfall. The Jomsvikings live on to do battle and lead long, happy lives, while the knights of King Arthur are dead, with very few exceptions. I believe the reason for this is the religiousness of the cultures. While the Norsemen were Christian at this time, they were hardly as devout as the English or Welsh (Earl Hakon reverts to paganism in the middle of the Battle of Hjorunga Bay). Therefore, I think the fact that the Knights of the Table Round were killed is because they betrayed God by betraying their oaths, and so their death serves as part of the warning of the story.
After examining all the similarities between these two stories, I came to two conclusions. First, since both orders were the best of their times, and both had a massive downfall, were the authors trying to say that it’s impossible to be perfect? I don’t think that this is what they were trying to say, at least not with the intent to imply that people shouldn’t try to be perfect. If one looks closely, both orders, thought of as the quintessential mortal beings of their times, keep trying even after their problems start to arise. When one looks at the stories from this perspective, I think it becomes clear that the authors were trying to say that no matter what happens to us, we should always keep trying, and that will push us towards perfection as well as success.
Secondly, it occurred to me that every culture has its stories designed to encourage good behavior and to promote the values of the culture. The ancient Greeks had the fables of the sixth century writer Aesop, most of which promoted values of kindness and initiative. Our own culture had the Horatio Alger stories of the early twentieth century, assuring the populace that every young man who was brought up in the tenements could go from “rags to riches” and realize the American dream. And certainly the stories of Arthur and the Saga of the Jomsvkings fall into this category as well. By looking at these stories of moral promotion, one can tell a lot about the culture doing the writing. Obviously the Norse in the fourteenth century placed a good deal of value on “manliness” and bravery, where in the 1910s Americans placed a lot of value on upward social mobility. Thus it raises the question, what will be our next story of morals, our next Saga of the Jomsvikings?